A bill that aims to create a special internet domain for children’s web sites passed a House committee April 10, but only after lawmakers added more stringent rules for the kinds of sites that would qualify.

Lawmakers pitched the bill as another way to protect children from accessing inappropriate material online, but some educators question how effective such a measure would be.

The bill, called the Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002 (H.R. 3833), aims to develop a second-level internet domain within the United States country code that would offer material geared toward children, while shielding them from harmful material on the internet.

The new internet domain would mean children’s web site addresses would end in “.kids.us.” A group such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, for example, would change its web address from http://www.bgca.org to http://www.bgca.kids.us.

Web sites using this domain would become a “green-light area” for kids on the internet, like the children’s section of a library. Dot-kids web sites would contain only content appropriate for children under 13.

The bill, which has about a dozen co-sponsors, requires content standards to be established for dot-kids web sites. It also requires a written agreement from each web site operator that ensures its web site meets the dot-kids content standards, procedures for enforcing compliance, a process for removing web sites that conflict with the rules, and a process so web site operators can resolve disputes impartially.

NeuStar Inc., which has a contract with the Commerce Department to administer top-level internet domain names, would manage the dot-kids domain.

The bill’s most recent amendments add measures to prevent children from being targeted or exploited online. The amendments ban chat rooms, eMail services, and hyperlinks that take users away from dot-kids web sites.

“The whole purpose of dot-kids is to create a safe place on the internet for children, specifically young children,” said Steve Tomaszewski, press secretary for Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who introduced the bill March 4 along with Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

“Dot-kids sites would naturally have young users,” Tomaszewski said. “By banning the chat rooms and eMail, you are taking away the ability for people to prey upon young users.”

“The major problem with this approach is that a dot-kids domain will rapidly become dot-Kids-R-Us,” said Nancy Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen Project of the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education.

Companies marketing to children “use the same techniques as sexual predators,” she said. “They establish relationships with children for the purpose of convincing [them] to engage in specific behavior. Far too many parents will think that this location is a ‘safe’ location for their children, not recognizing what the companies are doing.”

Anyone—including educational institutions, government agencies, companies, or private citizens—would be able to register a dot-kids web site, as long as they meet the bill’s requirements. “You can’t prohibit anyone from having a dot-kids site, as long as their material is suitable for children,” said Tomaszewski.

From a school perspective, Willard said the bill doesn’t facilitate access to high-quality educational resources: “What we desperately need is a vehicle to establish a safe environment for children to access good-quality educational sites that are not seeking to promote products.”

Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania, said parents would welcome internet space devoted to younger learners, but she doesn’t think the bill would be effective at protecting children from harmful internet content.

“I would not assume it was pure. Links can be added to sites or possibly disguised. I still would run my content filter,” Becker said.

Bob Moore, executive director of IT services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, said he doesn’t think a dot-kids domain is a practical solution to protecting students when online.

“I suppose it would be effective if kids are truly locked out of other domains, but I see that as unworkable in schools,” Moore said. “Our kids use resources in .com, .edu, .net., .org, and other [domains]. Are all of those content providers going to make their content available for ‘.kids’?”

Lawmakers have tried other legislative means to protect children online, including the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which mandates the use of internet filtering technology in schools and libraries that receive federal funding, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires web sites to get parental permission before collecting any personal information from children under 13.

Last year, lawmakers wanted the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)—which is responsible for making top-level domain decisions—to create a top-level domain “.kids,” similar to .com or .org.

But Japan, China, and some European countries were opposed to the idea of the United States making the rules for the internet, so lawmakers opted to create a dot-kids domain within the United States country code instead.

Links:

House Energy Commerce Committee
http://energycommerce.house.gov

Dot Kids Implementation and Efficiency Act of 2002
http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c107:H.R.3833

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
http://www.house.gov/upton

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill.
http://www.house.gov/shimkus

Neustar Inc.
http://www.neustar.com/